China Devotes Itself to the Yellow Ball

In a land where the main racket sport involves a table and paddles, and star pingpong athletes are treated like demigods, China now aims to dominate tennis on grass, clay and hard courts.

During the U.S. Open tennis grand slam in New York, a Chinese delegation unveiled the $200 million futuristic Qi Zhong tennis complex in Shanghai for the international tennis tournament, the Masters Cup, in November. Although no Chinese player graces the Top 10 rankings on the men's or women's side, many experts say it's only a matter of years before China sweeps tennis trophies, especially with the country's push to join the country club set and to get everyone whacking a yellow ball.

Trading Up: Tennis Racquet vs. Pingpong Paddle

Tennis, popular with China's nouveau riche and the Politburo but still relatively unknown in the countryside, has lobbed to the front of the government's priority list as China raises its sporting profile ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Tennis' organizing body for men, the Association of Tennis Professionals, couldn't be happier. China not only has cash to spend but its booming population represents a grand slam of potential recreational players that could propel tennis' popularity to the stratosphere.

"The Qi Zhong stadium is a new generation of tennis facility which will create even more commitment and interest in the Tennis Masters Cup around the world," said Jiang Lan, secretary general of the Tennis Masters Cup organizing committee.

The weeklong tournament caps off each season by gathering the top eight ranked male players to duke it out in singles and doubles play. Shanghai will host the tournament for the next two years.

After a video presentation of the 15,000-seat, eight-piece, sliding, magnolia-shaped glass roof, Jiang said that upon full completion, the center would be Asia's largest tennis facility, with 40 indoor and outdoor courts. Work has started on the 200-acre sports complex, which will become a place to develop Chinese equivalents of Lindsay Davenport and Roger Federer, according to Jiang.

"It is through efforts like that, that we hope to develop a Yao Ming of tennis," he said, referring to the Chinese superstar who slam-dunked his way into the NBA.

Tennis expert Bud Collins agrees.

"It's only a question of time before the Chinese develop good players," said Collins. Collins explained that money did the talking in securing a major tournament in a place that has a short tennis history.

Tapping Future Tennis Wannabes

So short, in fact, that ATP's chief executive officer Mark Miles likened one of the first major tennis tournaments in mainland China to a movie being badly dubbed.

"They [Chinese audiences] wanted to see the sport but it was like the soundtrack on the video was out of sync, they would applaud sort of during the match or just in the middle of an overhead," Miles said of a 1993 Shanghai tournament.

Tennis nonetheless grew. As China's economy revved up, leisure time and padded wallets meant more Chinese could pursue Western-style pursuits like golf and tennis.

Tennis seems to have won out, to the ATP's great satisfaction. Top-ranking government officials, notably the former mayor of Shanghai, dreamed of building a world-class stadium to rival the likes of Flushing Meadows and Wimbledon. The ATP loved to be courted, seeing China as an untapped gold mine of tennis enthusiasts. Consider that if only 1 percent of the Chinese population abandoned pingpong rec rooms for the tennis courts, that would add up to 13 million people.

"We know they're great athletes in table tennis and other sports, so all we need to do is expose them to tennis," said Brad Drewett, the Masters Cup tournament director. Ever since the early 1990s, the ATP's strategy has focused on getting the sport to grow in China, said Drewett. Most players would get weird responses when they said they were going to play in China, he recalled, but in 2002 the ATP realized there was growing appreciation.

In a warm-up of sorts, Shanghai hosted the 2002 Tennis Masters Cup tournament. During the Qi Zhong stadium presentation, Australian phenom Lleyton Hewitt said he was psyched about returning to China. (He won that year's Masters Cup.)

"I think the way that the whole region really took to tennis in that week was pretty amazing," Hewitt said, adding that he'd heard the sport had gotten even more popular since his last visit.

Build It and They Will Come?

Jiang rattled off signs of China's newfound passion for tennis. Aside from hosting numerous women's and men's tournaments, tennis racket sales have gone up 25 percent in the past three years and Adidas tennis apparel sales have surpassed U.S. sales, he said. He expects tennis mania to grow further with the upcoming Masters Cup. For the first time, Chinese national TV will air more than 60 hours of tennis with distribution to more than 700 million homes. Mind-numbing when you consider that the hit Fox show "American Idol" pulls in on average a record 30 million viewers.

It's no wonder the ATP selected Shanghai among the 20 bid cities as the site of the Masters Cup.

At the sun-drenched U.S. Open, a recent visitor didn't see many Chinese tennis fans cruising around the grounds despite three female players from their homeland flexing their muscles on the blue courts. If we're to believe Jiang and the tennis cognoscenti, it's unlikely to stay that way.

Maybe Americans have a chance at winning medals in pingpong during the next Olympics?